Hotaru: Fireflies (page 2)
by Nene Adams © 2001 - All rights reserved

 

CHAPTER SEVEN - Dogs of War

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
11 a.m., the second Hour of the Snake

Ryoko screamed.

Cords stood out in her neck and bulging veins snaked across her forehead as the horrible, wailing sound went on and on. Her fingernails dug deeply into her palms, drawing blood. Ryoko's painfully thin body convulsed, spine arching so high that it seemed likely her backbone would snap in half.

The rice she lay on began to smoke and turn black as it sucked demon poisons from her body. Sun Moon nodded and several priests rushed towards the bed, hands outstretched to hold her in place while the spells did their work.

The priests didn't have a prayer.

As Ryoko wailed again, an answering scream came from a room close by, followed by a deep, rumbling howl. Oni-bi, the dancing fireballs that heralded supernatural forces at work, suddenly popped into existence and began to whizz around the room. Flames dripped from the flying orbs, causing even more chaos. Ladies, servants, nobles and priests were jammed tightly within the confined space with no room to maneuver and their highly flammable kimonos began to smolder.

Some beat out their flaming sleeves and whimpered, eyes rolling crazily. Others hunkered down and trembled. All were convinced that the end of the world had come.

The demon fires were like crazed firefly ghosts, dipping and swooping overhead while their victims cringed helplessly.

Ayumi could sense it; a subtle trembling in the atmosphere, a roiling cloud of unstable emotions that threatened to spill over and engulf the entire room. The situation was ripe. It would only take a single, simple trigger...

On the bed, Ryoko screamed, echoed by a lady in waiting whose nerve finally broke. The woman leaped up and began clawing her way through the packed mass of people.

The raw tension in the air shattered and the crowd erupted in absolute, mindless panic

A mob surged towards the narrow door, breaking through the paper screened walls, trampling one another in their frenzy to escape. Those outside the room were caught up in the craze and they, too, added to the general chaos.

Ayumi grabbed Kimiko, the samurai using her squat, muscular body to deflect the bodies that hurtled around them.

Ignoring the panic stricken stream, the exorcist ripped a long hair from his medium's head and tossed it over Ryoko's head, drawing the thin binding so tight that a necklet of blood drops shimmered on the woman's throat. Slapping his fan over her face, Sun Moon roared a spell; a mirror shattered, spraying fragments of glass everywhere.

 Kimiko whimpered, clinging to Ayumi in desperation as the crush surged around them.

A palace ga-domen with fear-crazed eyes suddenly drew his sword and began slashing at random, screaming incoherently.

The edge of his katana swept down towards Kimiko - and was caught in Ayumi's upthrust hand so skillfully that her flesh was uninjured.

She jerked the sword out of his nerveless grasp and waved it over her head, bellowing, "Out of my way! Make room or by Buddha, I will cut you all down!"

Demon fires bobbed in the air, sizzling gently. While the crowd melted around them, Ayumi took a swing at one of the oni-bi, snarling. "Kuso shite shinezo! If you flee you face King Emma, but if you stay, you must face me! Go now or die shitting!"

Kimiko could feel the furious beating of Ayumi's heart; the rhythm thudded through her palms, tangled around her veins, bolstered her own faint pulse and made her liver flop over in an ecstatic burst of pure love.

There was a sound like a sigh and the oni-bi vanished.

The entire chaotic episode took mere seconds to resolve, although it seemed they had been in the midst of a sea of hysterical humanity for hours. Ayumi and Kimiko both panted; the samurai was covered in a thin sheen of sweat.

The medium's plump face was twisted in agony. She grunted and opened her mouth wide, tongue straining at the air.

Sun Moon slid his fan down Ryoko's body, mumbling spells in an arcane language, while twisting the hair around the lady's neck tighter and tighter. Then he half turned and slapped the fan on top of the medium's head.

Suwa Denbe stumbled into the room. "My daughter..." he said hoarsely, swaying on his feet. His face was a ghastly grey color. "My son..."

By dint of great effort, Kimiko managed to pry her hands away from Ayumi's body. "Is it Moth? Has she been found?"

Denbe shook his head. "Iye! First my child, then my wife... now the gods have cursed me again." He rolled his eyes to Heaven. "What have I done, what evil have I committed, that you despise me so? Am I so different than other men?"

He fell to his knees, knocking his forehead against the mats. "Gomen nasai... gomen nasai... gomen nasai..."

Ayumi touched Kimiko's cheek. "Knowing our noble and brave monkey-samas, they won't stop running until they reach the coast and they will probably gather half the populace with them on the way. I do not want to leave you..."

"But you must." Kimiko rubbed her face against Ayumi's hand. "Go and see what has happened to Cricket and the baby. I will try and find a servant to take a message to Captain Saburo."

Ayumi turned to go, the confiscated sword dangling from her fist. She was stopped by a soft touch on her sleeve. "Be careful," Kimiko whispered.

The samurai nodded and Kimiko turned her attention to Lord Denbe, who was still beating his forehead against the floor.

"Is this any way for a nobleman to act?" she asked acidly, hands on her hips. Further comment was interrupted by a full throated wail from the medium.

"Foolish man!" the fat girl hissed, eyes wide and unblinking.

The exorcist drew himself up. On the bed behind him, Ryoko lay quietly, unmoving. Every grain of rice on the mattress had turned black but the lady appeared to be sleeping peacefully.

Denbe sat up and stared at the medium.

"Stupid, proud, arrogant worm! You spurn love offered freely and spit on the heart that is given to you! You deserve to be punished!"

Sun Moon pulled a folded book from the front of his robes. "Who art thou?" he demanded in the most formal language. "Tell me thy name, foul spirit, or I shall destroy the vessel thou hast possessed, trapping thee forever in the chains of karma and rebirth!"

The medium writhed despite her bonds. "Rather ask who I am not!" she replied scornfully. "In number I outrival the Myriads of Myriads; I am always and forever; I am that which dares not show itself beyond the shadows, and yet I am more powerful than the sun."

Kimiko watched the exchange with a combination of fascination and dread. Was it her imagination, or was the medium's face getting thinner and longer, more wedge-shaped? Was there a suggestion of scales on the girl's cheekbones? When she spoke, did her tongue seem to be... split?

"I command that you reveal your true nature!" Sun Moon cried. "By Fudo Demon-Queller, I so command!"

The medium hissed again. Her complexion was definitely taking on a greenish tinge. "Aiiii! You cannot touch me!" The pupils of her eyes were elongated slits set into pools of brilliant, eerie blue. "You cannot kill me for I do not exist!"

"What... what have you done with my children?" Denbe croaked.

The medium's head swayed back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm. "They, too, deserve to be punished. Have they not stolen the regard that you should have reserved for another?"

The stench of scorched feathers abruptly filled the air. Sun Moon snatched the now burning fan away from the possessed medium and flung it to the floor.

"I will destroy you piece by piece," the spirit promised, making the medium's face swell grotesquely. "You will beg for death before I am finished."

There was a thunderclap so loud that the roof beams vibrated and groaned in protest...

And then it was gone.

The medium slumped forward, unconscious.

Ryoko woke and after a weak struggle managed to lever herself upright with an elbow. Her voice shook as she asked, "Is everything well, husband?"

Suwa Denbe's hand went to his sword... and fell away. "No, honorable wife," he said with finality. "It is not."

"Please forgive me," Ryoko replied humbly. "I must have fallen asleep. Allow me to fetch you some tea, my lord." It was clear that she had no memory of her former illness.

Lord Denbe nodded. "Yes. Tea." His shoulders slumped in defeat.

Kimiko and the exorcist exchanged a glance.

Both had the feeling that things were not over yet.


Cricket and Little Brother were gone, vanished as completely as Moth and Small Water Dragon before them. 

Ayumi fingered a torn blanket. The room where the children had slept was free of blood but still looked as if a huge fight had taken place. 

But a fight between who... or what? 

There were some curled shavings of wood near the baby's empty sleeping sack. The children's nurse, Miya, was dead; her rapidly cooling body was draped across Cricket's bed and it was clear from the fearsome wounds that she had defended her charges to the very end. 

Ayumi squatted next to the dead woman, avoiding stepping on the bluish-gray coils of intestines that bubbled from the gash in Miya's abdomen. She picked up a wood shaving and held it to her nose, closing her eyes in concentration and trying to ignore the stench of cut bowels. 

It is freshly cut, she thought. Made of aloes wood and painted white on one side. Ayumi opened her eyes and frowned. Something was not quite right and she felt as if the answer lay on the tip of her tongue... 

A movement in the corner of her eye shifted her attention. Ayumi rolled out of the way just as a sword swung down, biting into the tatami mats. 

"Assassin!" Captain Saburo said furiously, readying himself for another strike. "You have no honor!" 

Ayumi blocked the man's next thrust with the katana in her hand. "I have done nothing wrong," she replied, getting to her feet. "You are mistaken." 

"You have killed the nurse. What did you do with the children?" Saburo's eyes narrowed and his mustache bristled. "How much money does it take to buy a ninja, eh? Who is your master?" 

"I am not a ninja!" Ayumi declared. She easily blocked Saburo's blows, struggling to suppress her samurai training and not return a killing strike. 

Their swords screeched together, almost drawing sparks, the thousand-layer steel blades singing shrilly in protest. 

Saburo grunted. He was not as young as he used to be and the days of gallant generalship, when he could ride all day, drink all night and still rise as fresh as a carnation to lead the troops were long behind him. Initially fueled by fury, he knew he could not possibly match Ayumi's youth and strength. He still had cunning, however, and the old dog could teach the pup a trick or two. 

"Eeeee!" he yelled, summoning all his ki energy for one final strike. He milked the hilt of his katana, holding it at a forty-five degree angle away from his body, and bulled towards Ayumi, coming up under her sword and making a stabbing thrust at her kidneys. It was a battle tactic never known to fail. 

Impossibly, it did. Ayumi half turned and bent backwards like a willow, trapping Saburo's katana with her back and jerking it from his grasp as she fell. As soon as her shoulders touched the floor she kicked out hard with her feet, sliding her body between his legs, her own sword sweeping up... and it was over. 

Saburo stared at the tip of Ayumi's blade, which was centered between his eyes. She was flat on her back staring up at him, a fierce grimace twisting her face. 

A bead of sweat rolled down the Captain's nose, dropped on the curved tip of the woman's katana, and slid down the length of steel. 

"I have no quarrel with you," Ayumi said through gritted teeth. "Look at the nurse's body. Look!" 

Slowly, Saburo's gaze shifted sideways. 

"Do those look like stab wounds to you? With such ragged edges? Miya was attacked by an animal, not a ninja, you bakayarou!" 

The Captain nodded, letting out the breath he had been holding. "I see. Please forgive my error, honorable samurai." There was a pause and he added, "I humbly apologize for believing you were a ninja. Gomen nasai." 

Ayumi withdrew her sword and released the older man. "Shigata ga nai," she answered shortly, getting up from the floor. "Fools cannot help being foolish." 

"And laws cannot help but be enforced," Saburo said. "You do know that drawing your sword within the confines of the city and the palace is an offense punishable by death." 

"It is not mine," Ayumi replied, letting the katana fall to the mats. "I took it from one of your ga-domen who was about to turn half the palace nobility into sushi." 

The Captain smoothed his mustache. "Do I need to arrange the misfortunate idiot's funeral?" he asked. 

"If he survived the mob in Lady Ryoko's room, then the answer is no." Ayumi casually planted a foot on the wood shavings. "I suggest you summon someone to take care of Nurse Miya." 

"Did you see any trace of Lord Denbe's children?" 

"No. Not so much as a hair." 

Saburo nodded. "Very well. I will station more guards in this end of the palace..."

"No."

"What do you mean?"

Ayumi scooped the man's katana from the floor and gently ran her thumb along the edge, leaving a thin film of blood. It was dishonorable to the soul of the blade to return it to its scabbard unblooded.

She presented the sword hilt first. "My mistress is in danger. I would prefer that you assign some guards to her chambers. Kimiko-sama is being married to Lord Denbe soon. Considering what has happened to his principal wife, secondary wives and his children... do you not think my lady has the greatest need?"

"Perhaps." Saburo accepted his katana, pulled a wad of paper tissues from his sleeve, and carefully cleaned the blade with deliberate strokes while he considered the woman's request. "Very well. I will split the guard detail equally. Now I must see to my duties. I suggest you see to yours."

Ayumi waited until his bulky form had disappeared before she collected the wood shavings and tossed them into a nearby charcoal brazier.

She would have to see Snow Fairy again... soon.

But first, she had an appointment with the court's biggest gossip - Lady Naisho.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT - Bird and Beast Song

Hito-ha chiru                   One leaf lets go 
Totsu hito-ha chiru           And then another falls 
Kaze no ue                      High on the wind. 
                 -----Ransetsu

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Hall of Little Birds
2 p.m., the first Hour of the Sheep

As she strolled down the Hall of Little Birds on her way to Lady Naisho's rooms, Ayumi checked the wire seal on her sword. She'd repaired it again but one more break would leave the metal thread so brittle it would be impossible to fix. This particular type of wire was used only by the Ministry of Law and their supply was well guarded; she had no way of getting more. The samurai was tempting fate - not to mention execution - but her exposure to palace intrigue had left Ayumi with an uncontrollable need to keep her sword free in its sheath. 

It was storming outside, a wild gale from the mountains that smelled of snow and salt. Wind blew against the paper shutters, rattled shoji in their tracks, and smashed icy raindrops against the roof, accompanied by the sound of thunder and distant flashes of lightning. Thunder Guards jogged around the Imperial compound; dressed in red brocade and round lacquered hats, they plucked bowstrings and chanted prayers to keep the palace and its people safe from lightning strikes. 

Ayumi shook her head. Even the lowliest peasant knew that to avoid the sizzling wrath of the storm gods, all you had to do was hold a pebble in your mouth and recite the Thousand Hands sutra. 

Trust the useless nobility to build a new Fuji from an anthill base, she thought scornfully, and make something complicated out of simplicity.

Lady Naisho lived in a small set of rooms that would have been considered exquisitely furnished had it not been for the dozens of  birdcages and their twittering occupants that hung from every beam and stood on every surface. Feathers, dust and droppings soiled the tatami mats; warbled song rent the air from dawn to dusk. Next to gossip, Naisho's greatest passion was breeding tiny, jewel-colored birds that lived and died in their fantastically crafted bamboo prisons. 

The lady was reading a Karan scroll and nibbling sweet chestnuts when Ayumi entered. "Ah, Kimiko-san's famous retainer!" Naisho called. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit, honorable samurai?" 

Ayumi knelt down at the other side of the low table and bowed. "Please excuse me for disturbing you." She glanced around; the lady was in mourning for her fourth husband, which explained why the family shrine was draped in a white cloth banner. 

"Ma! Such nice manners for a rough warrior!" Naisho popped a syrupy chestnut into her mouth and chewed energetically. She was a short, petite woman, still pretty despite her middle years, who only looked fragile and delicate. In fact, she was tough as iron, as enthusiastic as a child and sly as a monkey; nobody underestimated her twice. 

She cocked her head to one side and peered at Ayumi with wickedly gleaming eyes. "You disturb me all right, samurai, but not in a way that my former husbands would have approved." 

Ayumi shifted uncomfortably. Was Naisho flirting with her? "Gomen nasai," she murmured, unsure of what to say or how to proceed. 

Naisho solved her dilemma by laughing, revealing black dyed teeth. "I forgive your disturbances, Ayumi-san. All of them." She thoughtfully chose another chestnut and nibbled the edges. "Mou! Enough pleasantries; I can see that your shoulders are not quite broad enough to endure the weight of compliments." 

Ayumi shrugged. "Forgive me, my lady. I am unused to courtly ways." 

"So! We go directly to business. It will be a refreshing change from the usual ritual of mindless banter." Naisho finished the sweetmeat and delicately wiped her fingertips on the edge of a towel. "What information do you wish, O Blunt One?" 

This was more like it. Ayumi sat up straighter and asked, "Has anything unusual happened within the Suwa clan, or with Suwa Denbe in particular?" 

"You mean besides his children disappearing like blown candle flames?" 

Ayumi nodded but before Naisho could continue, there was a scratching at the paper screened door that led to the verandah. 

"Please excuse me," the lady said, getting up from her knees and walking towards the door. She paused. "Would you care to see the source of my information, honorable samurai? Many believe that I pay for servant's gossip. Aiii! If so, I would be penniless while the lowest bucket emptier in the palace would feast at my expense! No, I prefer another way. Come." 

"Why would you expose your secrets to me?" the samurai asked, rising and following Naisho out into the garden. "We know one another only through our connection to my lady." 

"I trust you, O Blunt One, and I like Kimiko-san. At my age, I have learned to tell the difference between true honor and pretense. I don't particularly care if my source is revealed, either. I've never kept my friends a secret; it's just that most people who visit me are either in too much of a hurry to bargain for information or nervous about what I know regarding them, and therefore have little time for amusements." Naisho gave her a saucy grin. "Please allow an old lady to indulge in a small display of pride." 

Ayumi nodded politely. "So what have we come here to see?" 

Naisho gestured. The samurai turned around and gazed back at the verandah... then took a step backwards in surprise, hand straying to the hilt of her sword. 

A hideous creature hung from the roof beams; it resembled a feathered, clawed lizard with an oddly human face and a long, whip-thin tail. As she watched, the foot-long monster scuttled down and came towards them. Ayumi's hand tightened its grip on her katana but it gave the women a wide berth and leaped into an abandoned well at the back of the garden. 

Naisho smiled. "A shokera," she explained. "Souls from the Hell of Lusty Swallowers, reborn in this form to pay a karmic debt. They live on rooftops and delight in spying on households; a minor nuisance that any acolyte priest can banish. There is a veritable army of shokera living in the palace; I suppose the Dowager has better things to protect the Son of Heaven from gossipy spirits." 

Ayumi cleared her throat, eyeing the well warily. "You are allied with monsters from the Buddhist hell?" 

"Not exactly." Naisho retrieved a basket of hen's eggs from the steps of the verandah. "I do pay for information but the wage is cheaper than coin." 

The lady walked to the well and dropped two eggs inside. There was a hollow crunching sound, then a thin, reedy voice, like the piping of a shakuhachi flute, began to float up from the dark interior.. 

Ayumi listened in astonishment. Lord Yorihisa was doing what with the prostitute Dog Nose at the Chrysanthemum Seat brothel? Was that physically possible? She shook her head to dislodge the disturbing mental picture. 

Lady Naisho stayed bent over the well mouth until the recitation stopped. She bowed briefly and rejoined Ayumi. "So you see, Blunt One, my spies are not human and thus, far more reliable." 

The samurai considered. "Would these shokera be prevented from spying on a Shinto temple?" 

"I suppose so," the lady answered tentatively. "Holy ground is holy ground, Buddha's footsteps or not. Oh! This may be of interest to you." 

"Yes?" 

"I was reminded of it because of the Shinto temple. I've just recalled something unusual that took place just before Lord Denbe's misfortunes began. It was a retirement ceremony." 

"I didn't know the lord had retired a sword!" 

"No, nothing so serious as that. It was a toy." 

Ayumi crinkled her brows. "A toy? Why would he retire a toy to a Shinto temple?" 

"Not just any child's plaything, mind you. It was an inu-hariko, a paper-mache dog. More than a hundred years old, which is why it was retired to a temple." 

"Please excuse me, but why a Shinto temple? Don't Buddhists usually take care of things like the hundred-year's curse?" 

Lady Naisho shrugged. It was believed that anything - trees, tools, household articles - which reached a century in age then gained a soul, which could be good or evil. Retiring the object in question to a temple was a precautionary measure; soothing the new soul with incense and prayers kept the owners safe from vengeful articles and bad karma. 

"You are right," Naisho said. "I do not know why he chose Shinto unless... well, the dog was painted white. I suppose a toy painted such an inauspicious color wouldn't be allowed to enter a Buddhist temple." 

Ayumi felt she held one of the keys to the puzzle. Now she asked, "Did anything out of the ordinary happen to Lady Ryoko before their family troubles?" 

"She hasn't attended a jealousy meeting in a while. We thought she was too busy supervising the children. Lord Denbe has nearly gambled away all his personal fortune; poor Ryoko hasn't a penny to her name anymore and can't really afford more nurses." 

"What is a jealousy meeting? I've never heard of such a thing!" 

Naisho laughed. "A group of wives meets in my quarters every month. We're all friends and would never reveal our shame to the world but... well, no husband is perfect. We women are taught to conceal our emotions, to show our lords a smiling face and a welcoming bow, to give him nothing but the perfection of purity and light. We are forced to endure such hardships when our lord is indifferent or has been captivated by another! Oh, we feel jealousy in our hearts - as terrible as that is to admit - but we can never, ever show it. Some of us attend meetings where we can bare our souls and share our burdens without censure. It really is a cleansing exercise." 

"And Ryoko went to these meetings?" 

"Of course." Naisho sat the basket of eggs down on the steps. "Poor woman. She desperately loves Lord Denbe but it was an arranged marriage and he has never looked upon her with favor. She would do anything for him. Do you know, she even went down into the city to see a 'wet needle woman' in the Street of Falling Petals when he told her that bearing children would make her too ugly to be endured?" 

Ayumi struggled to keep her jaw from dropping. The midwife had told her that the lord beat Ryoko to make her miscarry but Naisho was suggesting that she'd had a deliberate abortion to please her husband. "Please forgive me for asking, but how accurate is that information?" 

"I had it from the abortionist herself and it was confirmed by a madame who runs the brothel next door, not to mention my shokera spies. The last time, Ryoko nearly bled to death and her womb was destroyed in punishment for the sin of infant murder. Poor, poor woman." Naisho sighed. "All for the love of a man who hates the very sight of her. What things we women do for the sake of love!" 

"And Ryoko spoke of these things at the jealousy meetings?" 

"Merciful Kwannon, no! I told you, I found this out some time later. All old ladies have to have some hobby to keep them interested in life; gossip is mine." Naisho shook her head in mock dismay and grabbed her breasts. "Withered as I am, my amusements are of a less fleshly nature than one could wish." 

Ayumi's lips quirked in a half smile. "You are no more withered than I am," she replied gallantly. Naisho's flirting was more subtle and charming than most; even she was not immune to the spell. "I suspect half the court is madly in love with you; the other half would be if they could pry their minds away from peach bottom boys and cross-eyed actors." 

Naisho beamed. "Good girl. Compliments will get you everywhere!" 

"Perhaps. However, my lady, you were telling me about Ryoko...?" 

"Ah, yes. Please forgive my lapse." Naisho turned serious again. "Ryoko spoke of her hatred for Denbe-san's second wives, his courtesan and the children he'd had by them. She was so happy when the other wives died by accident, although taking care of their brats did not bring her joy." 

"You know the lady is ill...?" 

"Oh, yes! I know about the exorcism. Strange, isn't it? Ryoko always enjoyed excellent health until the lord brought a second wife into the household. Then she began to have strange fevers and sicknesses which the doctors could not cure." 

A terrible suspicion was blossoming in Ayumi's brain. "Let me see if I understand you correctly. You say that the honorable lady was ill when Lord Denbe married again. After his second wife's death, did she become well again?" 

"Now that you mention it... yes. Both times. An odd pattern, I agree." 

"Thank you very much for your time, my lady." Ayumi bowed deeply. "You have been most helpful." 

Naisho smiled. "Should you require assistance again, O Blunt One, you know where I live." 

Ayumi bowed again. "When the peach is ripest, has it not then the sweetest flesh?," she quoted. "Should I happen upon anything of interest, my lady, I will inform you at once." 

Lady Naisho pressed fingertips to her breastbone and sighed as Ayumi retired. 

If only her husbands had shown half the spirit of this female samurai! 

Steamy speculating on Ayumi's possible pillowing expertise and the techniques she might use took up the rest of Naisho's exciting afternoon. 


Kimiko stared at the letter in astonishment. "Saneyoshi-sama has gone mad!" she exclaimed. 

Izumi hurried over. "What is it, my lady? Bad news?" 

"The worst news! I am to be married tonight!" 

Izumi gasped. "But the wedding kimonos have only just been ordered! The seamstresses will never finish in time! And the food for the feast is not prepared! The cooks will be in despair!" 

"I am not concerned with the injured feelings of cooks!" Kimiko wailed. "I cannot believe my uncle would do this to me!" 

"Please, my lady. Do not despair so. You will do yourself an injury." Izumi wrung her hands and wondered how she could hide all the sharp objects in the room without her mistress noticing. 

Kimiko tore the offending letter into shreds and let the pieces scatter on the floor. "I hate him! I hate him! Oh, why can't they all just leave me alone!" 

Izumi hastily fetched a bottle of sake. "Here, my lady. Drink some of this. It will make you feel better." 

Kimiko grabbed the clay bottle and drank its fiery contents in a few gulps, blinking tears from her eyes as the liquor burned its way down to her stomach. "I know I must do my duty to clan and family. I am a woman and the world is ruled by men. Giri is giri. Shigata ga nai. I know this and yet... oh! How I wish I did not have to accept the inevitable. Just once I would like to act as a man and not have to endure as a woman!" 

"Please, my lady. Do not speak so." Izumi tried to take the empty vessel but Kimiko waved it dangerously near her head. 

"I will speak as I wish!" Kimiko shouted, all decorum gone in a haze of sake fumes. "Fetch me a sharp knife." 

"Oh, my lady!" Izumi began to cry. "Seppuku is not the answer!" 

"Hah!" Completely unused to hard liquor, the girl was tottering on her feet. "I don't want to cut my throat. But when that miserable worm Denbe tries to crawl into my bed, I'll skewer his jade pole like a grilled eel!" 

"Aiii! She has gone mad! Oh, merciful Buddha, take my life in exchange for my lady's restored sanity!" 

Kimiko threw the bottle across the room, where it plunged through the paper paned wall and shattered against a wooden chest. "I am not mad. I am angry!" 

Just then, Ayumi walked into the room, taking in the scene with rolling eyes. "What is going on here?" she asked. 

Izumi cried, "Our mistress is insane! You should not have interfered, samurai! I blame you for all this!" 

Kimiko hiccuped. "My honorable and esteemed uncle-san has decided I am to marry Denbe tonight at the first Hour of the Boar." 

"I see." Ayumi sniffed ostentatiously. "What motherless idiot has made you drunk, my lady?" 

Izumi turned crimson. "It was only one bottle!" she said. 

Ayumi sighed. "It was enough. Have a servant fetch some buckets of cold water, Izumi. I will speak to our lady until they arrive." 

The plump woman was loathe to leave. "The lady may try and do some damage to herself," she warned. "This is all your fault!" 

The samurai regarded the indignantly quivering maid. "All fault lies in Heaven and the path of our life is determined by unmei," she said calmly. "Weep a river or rival the thunderbolts in your accusations to the gods, but it will not change a thing. What is written to be, will be; even Buddha must bow to fate. Now go fetch that water and quickly. Our mistress needs to prepare for her wedding." 

Izumi's face burned hotly but she turned and fled the room. 

Now Ayumi looked at Kimiko. "I know you are angry," she said, "but I thought you had accepted your duty." 

"I thought I did, too." Now that the first flush of sake courage had left her system, Kimiko drooped. "I want to fight but I cannot." The flesh around her eyes appeared bruised and she gazed at the samurai with an expression of hopelessness. "I am trapped and cannot escape... can I?" 

Ayumi sensed where this was going and said carefully, "You have been protected all your life, my lady. First by your family, then by your position and wealth. Even if you ran away, where would you go? How would you live? Where would you sleep? You are a noblewoman and cannot live in the world alone." 

"I could live with you." Even as she said it, Kimiko knew what Ayumi's answer would be. 

"Yes. A poor ronin, unprotected by the law, preyed upon by samurai and peasant alike. A stone would be my pillow, and my purse a haven for worms. Would you leave everything and everyone you know behind to live the life of a bandit's whore? If I died, rape would be the least you could expect." 

Kimiko nodded miserably. "I had such dreams..." 

"Those were the dreams of a child. Now you must be a woman." Ayumi put her hands on Kimiko's shoulders. "Accept your unmei and remember - don't count the skins of badgers that haven't been caught. This isn't over yet and anything could happen." 

"It would take a miracle to save me." 

Ayumi smiled, startling the girl. "Sometimes the gods substitute miracles for chamberpots." 

Kimiko sniffled. "Am I a fool for harboring a shred of hope in my heart?" 

"No." Ayumi bent her head and kissed the girl's lips gently. "You are human." 

She turned to go and Kimiko said desperately, "Will you not stay with me? I could order Izumi to make the bed... we have all afternoon..." 

"Please forgive me, my lady." Ayumi knew what the girl was asking but chose to deliberately misunderstand. "I rarely take naps in the daytime and I fear I have a pressing appointment. Wipe your eyes and repair your makeup, Kimiko-sama. I will return. You have my oath on it." 

Kimiko was too dejected to press the issue and had absolutely no curiosity about the samurai's errand. She'd wanted to pillow with the samurai at least once before her marriage. A single hour with her would be worth a lifetime of embraces from Denbe-san, she thought with regret. Ah well. Shigata ga nai.

As Ayumi let herself out, Kimiko knelt down at her dressing table and stared into the round mirror. 

Duty is duty.

Somehow, that noble thought brought absolutely no comfort at all. 

 

CHAPTER NINE - New Souls' Journey

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
Shinto Shrine of the priestess Snow Fairy
4 p.m., the first Hour of the Monkey

Snow Fairy stood at the entrance of the temple. The twin albino snakes were curled around her wrists, mad pink eyes unblinking. When Ayumi drew closer and passed through the tori gate, the priestess bowed. 

"I was expecting you," Snow said, drawing the folds of her stark white kimono closer to her neck. The silver forelock on her shaven head caught the late afternoon light, each colorless hair blazing like pale diamonds. "O-cha?" 

"Iye! No, thank you," Ayumi replied. "I have drunk enough tea today. What I would prefer, however, are answers." 

Snow's pink eyes went wide in pretended astonishment. "You still have questions, honorable warrior? And the palace remains standing? Amazing! I thought you'd have razed it to the ground by now and put all the inhabitants to the sword in your quest to know the unknowable." 

Ayumi's face was expressionless but her posture spoke eloquently of strained patience. "Do not be coy with me, priestess. You are involved in all this - how deeply, I don't know yet but I intend to find out." 

She took a step forward; although she and Snow were the same height, Ayumi still managed to loom with such an air of menace that the priestess hunched in anticipation. "There are worse things than dying," the samurai said matter-of-factly, "and the unknowable can be discovered... if the price is paid for knowledge. For example, I could take you into that temple, far away from any witnesses, and attempt to find out how long I can keep you alive while experimenting with a bamboo saw and a dull knife." 

Snow stared at the grim samurai... and felt a sudden flurry of ice running through her veins. She did not fear evil, for those tainted with such foulness always gave in to sadism and toyed with their victims, bragged and bellowed in self satisfaction, giving a slim opportunity for escape to the quick-witted. But the truly righteous, when convinced of the rightness of their actions, were far more merciless than any demon. 

The priestess had absolutely no doubt that Ayumi would do exactly what she threatened and never suffer a twinge of conscience. 

She would cut me down without a second thought if she believed it would serve her cause, Snow thought. In these decadent times, is it any wonder I am surprised to find such righteousness?

Aloud, she said, "I have no wish to deceive you, Ayumi-san. Ask your questions and I will answer truthfully." Snow stroked the snake on her left wrist, comforted by the creature's soft, scaly warmth. 

Ayumi deflated a little but stayed alert for trickery. "Very well. But if you lie to me, I will return... and I swear that the torments of the lowest quarter of Hell will be as nothing compared to what I will do to you." 

"Hai! Wakarimashita." 

"I know my mistress is in danger because of her marriage to Lord Denbe. What must I do to protect her?" 

Snow Fairy nodded. "A fair assumption. But you cannot protect her alone, samurai. The fiend responsible is not entirely human." 

"I guessed as much." Ayumi rubbed her crooked nose. "What is it, then?" 

"An ikiryo... and more." 

The samurai's brows rose. An ikiryo was a soul that left the body and wandered without its owner's knowledge, causing grievous harm by bringing plague sickness to a house. She'd suspected as much after learning the pattern of Ryoko's 'illnesses' but runaway souls could not cause the sort of harm she'd seen in the children's room. 

"What else?" Ayumi asked shortly. 

"I believe the lady's spirit has become a living hannya." Snow continued to lightly stroke the snakes entwined around her wrists. "She has corrupted herself with jealousy to such an extent that although her body yet lives, Ryoko-sama's soul has become a powerful ghost, something almost apart from herself, that will continue to cause destruction until it is stopped." 

"Why have you done nothing to prevent this? You are a priestess; isn't that your appointed task?" 

"As you know, the Son of Heaven is under the influence of his mother, who is a devout Buddhist," Snow answered slowly. "Practitioners of Shinto are not welcome at the Emperor's court; my temple here is a gesture to tradition only. Besides, no priest - Buddhist, Shinto, Taoist or otherwise - has any real power to defeat a hannya in direct confrontation." 

"Ah." Ayumi scratched the side of her crooked nose. "Did you not think to inform the Abbots, then?" 

Snow shrugged. "Would they have believed me?" 

The samurai had to admit that the priestess was right. Although Buddhism and Shinto existed side by side in the Floating World, the Buddhists had a rather condescending attitude towards the Way of the Kami, considering it a peasant religion with little validity. No Abbot would have given credence to Snow's warning; to do so would put his own position of ultimate knowledge in doubt. 

"You have a point," Ayumi said. "So... do you think Ryoko knows about her wandering soul?" 

"I do not think so. Lady Ryoko is essentially a good person who has secretly surrendered to the darkness in her heart and is not consciously aware that she has done so. She would be horrified to learn that the nightmares she suppressed for so long were responsible for three deaths." 

Ayumi was concentrating so hard she nearly missed Snow's last words. When they finally registered, she glanced up and frowned. "Only three deaths? Gomen nasai, but thus far, there have been six killed and I wish to prevent a seventh. Can you not count beyond the number of hairs on your head?" 

"The hannya took three lives, not one more." Snow Fairy gestured towards the temple. "Come and witness a miracle." 

The temple was built of cedar planks that had long ago turned silver with age; a mantle of gray-green moss dripped from the peaked thatch roof. It was a ramshackle affair that looked as if it might tumble to dust any moment. Snow led the way within; Ayumi noted that the air smelled fresh and clean, as if after a spring rain, and had none of the musty odor of old incense that permeated Buddhist structures. 

The front room was virtually empty; the dirt floor was swept clean and a circular stone hearth in the center held a crackling fire. A curtain made of stringed bells hung in a doorway, separating this space from the next. Snow pushed aside the jingling strands and gestured Ayumi inside. 

A woman knelt on a ragged tatami mat, nursing a baby at her breast. When the samurai entered, she jumped up and held a hand across her mouth, obviously terrified. 

Ayumi spread her hands apart. "I am not here to harm you," she said. Two girl children dressed in beautiful but crumpled kimonos clung to each other and stared at her with huge eyes. 

"Are you the courtesan called Small Water Dragon?" Ayumi asked the woman, who nodded. 

Snow Fairy said, "She is here to help you, Dragon. Why don't you give me the baby before you drop him on his head." 

After she had passed the baby to Snow, Dragon knelt down again, scrubbing her hands together nervously. "Please forgive me, honorable one," she said in a small voice. "I meant no disrespect." 

"I took none." Ayumi squatted across from her, hands on her knees. "So the priestess has sheltered you and the children all this time?" 

"Yes." Dragon was a pretty but bedraggled woman with tired eyes and coarse skin. "I don't understand what happened, though." 

"What did happen, little sister?" 

The courtesan looked helplessly at Snow and crumpled her forehead in thought. "Please excuse me, I'm sorry, honorable one, but I don't know. There was some fighting, I think. I hid my face in my sleeve and didn't watch. I do remember flying but I didn't look then, either. I'm not very brave." 

She seemed desperately anxious to please and kept giving shy glances out of the corner of her eye, like a child who expects to be scolded. 

It was becoming clear to Ayumi that Dragon wasn't the brightest young woman in the world. She said kindly, "I understand you were frightened. It is all right. You are a good girl for taking care of your baby and the little girls." 

Dragon brightened. "I like babies. Honorable Snow, shall I take the baby again and go look for bamboo shoots? I love the bamboo's children; we can have them for dinner with our rice!" 

Snow Fairy sighed and handed the now drowsy child back to its mother. "That would be very nice." 

As soon as the courtesan had scuttled from the room, bowing and smiling, Snow turned to the waiting samurai. "Small Water Dragon comes from a peasant family who sold her to a brothel before she started her monthly bleeding. She has a mind like a child and knows she isn't very intelligent. Sometimes she cries because she thinks she's too stupid." 

"Not stupid. A bit slow, perhaps, and far too innocent for this world," Ayumi replied. 

"I worry about her," Snow said, kneeling down across from the other woman. "I'm amazed she's survived this long. She cannot look out for herself; an unscrupulous person could harm her easily and Lord Denbe is not the most patient man in the world." 

"When this is over, take her to see Blue Carp at the Rushing Koi bathhouse. Carp will find her a protector - an old, retired nobleman who would enjoy spending his declining years pampering a young, pretty woman of little intelligence but great heart." 

"That is very good of you," Snow said, bowing and touching her forehead to the mat. "Now I suppose you wish to know how they came to be here unharmed." 

"I would." 

"Do you know about the hundred-year's curse?" 

"I do." Ayumi reached into the sleeve of her kimono and pulled out a small lacquer box of preserved ginger, offering a slice to the priestess. "Suwa Denbe retired a white toy dog to this temple to avoid it. What I would like to know is how that inu-hariko came to be in the garden and in the children's room when they were saved from the hannya's attack... and why." 

"How do you know it was there at all?" 

"I found a scrap of fabric in the garden - white cloth with a snowflake pattern. Exactly like your robe, in fact. I know that a sword retired to a Buddhist temple is hidden with a special covering; I assume this is also the case here." 

"Yes. I used a piece of one of my old kimonos to wrap the dog in." 

"I also found some bits of aloes wood, painted white on one side. It looked as if they had been clawed away from something." 

"This was in the children's room." This was not a question; Snow was making a statement. 

"Hai." Ayumi took a piece of ginger and stuck it into her mouth; the confection was exactly the same color pink as the priestess' eyes. "Let me make some assumptions and you will please tell me if I am correct." 

Snow nodded. "All right. Please continue." 

"Dogs have supernatural powers. They recognize demons in disguise; they are guardians and protectors of children, especially ones that travel by night. A toy dog is used to guard sleeping children, to make sure baku monsters don't steal their dreams, and to protect their souls from injury by evil creatures." 

"All true." 

"The inu-hariko in your temple has gained its own soul by virtue of its age. If this is a good soul - and I assume that it is - then it would feel obliged to act as a guardian to the children it loves and who once loved it." 

"Please excuse me, honorable samurai. You are perfectly correct," Snow said. "If you will allow me to explain...?" 

Ayumi grunted in assent. 

"The dog's soul gives it life but only when the children of its clan are threatened. In the garden and nursery, the inu-hariko fought the hannya of Ryoko and then brought its charges here, where it knew they would be safe. This is holy ground and evil beings cannot enter the temple. I have kept them all here under my protection, until the situation can be resolved and they are no longer in danger." Her pink eyes glittered with frustration. "It was all I could do under the circumstances. Although I could not destroy the hannya if it came here, the wards of magic around this place are not easily breached." 

"The dog didn't protect the nurse or Denbe-san's second wives because they were grown women. But Dragon...? Ah. You told me she has the mind of a child." 

"Yes. The inu-hariko recognizes the purity of her heart and soul. But I must tell you, Ayumi-san, your mistress is in grave danger." 

"The dog won't protect Kimiko-sama. Well, I thought as much. My lady is mature beyond her years." Ayumi stood up, automatically checking the looseness of her katana in its sheath. "What can I do?" 

"Any injury that is inflicted on the hannya will appear on Lady Ryoko's living body," Snow said. "Kill the soul and you destroy the flesh." 

"That explains the dog bite on Ryoko-san's leg." Ayumi sighed. "Tell me, is death such a bad thing? I could deprive the lady of her head in a moment and that would end the troubles right now." 

"Consider, honorable warrior. Ryoko-sama is responsible for these terrible deeds, yes, but only in a karmic fashion. She has no control over the hannya and does not even know it exists. Depriving the lady of an opportunity to pay for her soul's crimes in this world is cruel; even if she became a saint today she would still suffer terribly in Hell. Besides, if you are executed for murdering Denbe-sama's wife, who would protect Lady Kimiko?" 

"I will not stand idly by and watch my mistress die at the hands of a cruel spirit!" 

"You will not have to." Snow got up and went to a table set against the wall. A number of offering bowls and strangely twisted bottles stood on the rough wooden surface. "We can do nothing to banish the hannya without killing Ryoko-sama. Even a powerful inu-hariko can only fight the spirit to a draw. Therefore, we must allow the only person who has power over the hannya to destroy it." 

"And who might that be? I hope you aren't going to suggest that charlatan of an exorcist. He wouldn't recognize a wandering soul if it possessed his honorable back passage and made him fart folk tunes." 

Snow guffawed. "No. Not even the High Holy Abbot of Kamo Shrine can destroy a hannya, as I've already told you." She sobered; the albino snakes slid off her arms and slithered to the floor, burrowing into a heap of straw in a corner of the room. 

Her pink eyes gleamed as she regarded the samurai. "We must go directly to the source." 

"Speaking in riddles again?" Ayumi bowed mockingly. "Enlighten this miserable worm, O Wisdom of the Ages, I beg you." 

Snow picked up a bottle and shook it; the liquid inside was bright blue and seemed to glow with an eerie light. "I have a plan. You must allow Kimiko-sama to marry Lord Denbe. I hope this is the catalyst that will draw the hannya out into the open." 

"And then?" Although Ayumi's liver twisted at the thought of her mistress marrying that offspring-of-a-debauched monkey, she knew that fate could not be escaped. If it is meant to be, she thought, it will be. Shigata ga nai. But if he harms her, I will tie his noble intestines to a tree and invite the local peasantry to watch him dance into the grave.

Snow Fairy explained her plan in detail. It was very dangerous and might not work; indeed, if it didn't, then Kimiko would surely forfeit her life. 

To her vast surprise, Ayumi found herself agreeing with the priestess' idea. 

What choice do I have? The gods are hurling dungheaps and pisspots with unerring aim, she thought. I can only do my duty and pray that my lady be spared. Do you hear me, you indifferent bastards? If anyone must die, let it be me. Otherwise, I'll cut my belly, march up from Hell and rattle the teeth of Heaven until your divine ears fall off.

As she left the temple, Ayumi spared a final glance over her shoulder; Snow stood outside, watching her with a grave expression. 

Shigata ga nai

One way or another, it would end tonight.

 

CHAPTER TEN - Hiding the Horns

Futatsu kite              Round a flame
Shi o arasou ya        Two tiger moths

Hitorimushi.              Race to die.

                  -----Kaikai

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
Hall of Golden Koi to the Roof of the Red Gods
8 p.m., the first Hour of the Dog

"Please turn your head this way, my lady," Izumi mumbled through a mouthful of pins.

With a sigh, Kimiko obeyed the maid's instructions. Her floor length hair had been washed, carefully draped over a bamboo rack with a brazier in the bottom, and dried with vigorously applied fans. Now Izumi was putting the glossy, oiled locks up into a complex arrangement of loops and knots - the traditional hairstyle worn by brides.

Kimiko had already donned her wedding costume. Layer after layer of stark crimson robes, arranged to show the merest sliver of a peach underkimono at her throat, topped with a gloriously extravagant gold tissue mantle whose long, full sleeves touched the ground. All of this finery had been borrowed from a noblewoman of Kimiko's acquaintance whose daughter had just been married.

Izumi slid the last pin into place. The head was decorated with a mother-of-pearl winged butterfly, cunningly crafted to quiver in a lifelike manner with every movement. She picked up a length of white muslin. "Please hold still, my lady."

The muslin was wrapped around Kimiko's forehead and the top edges teased up to partially obscure the front and sides of the girl's hair. This was meant to hide the "horns of jealousy" that all women possessed and indicate that the bride was willing to do her marital duty without complaint.

Kimiko knelt with a perfectly straight back, hands folded together in her lap, face expressionless. It felt as if all the blood had drained from her veins, her heart replaced by a block of ice. She was freezing. There was an iron brazier nearby but mere heat could not penetrate the burning cold that wrapped around her bones.

Perhaps I am possessed by Yuki Onna, the Woman of the Snows, she thought. Perhaps I will die before I must endure Denbe's touch. Or perhaps I will kill him myself.

She surreptitiously touched the knife concealed in her sleeve. The sharp, solid shape was comforting.

Izumi painted her mistress' face stark white, adding touches of scarlet rouge to lips and cheeks. False eyebrows were smudged in, although lower than usual due to the "horn hider" around Kimiko's forehead. Finally, the maid sat back on her heels and smiled. "You are beautiful, my lady. There won't be a woman at the wedding who doesn't gnash her teeth in envy."

Kimiko did not reply.

"Would you care for some o-cha?"

There was no response. Kimiko stared into the mirror on her low dressing table, eyes hooded.

Izumi was feeling a little desperate. "Did not your lady mother ever tell you that girls who are too vain will end up devoured by the mirror monster?" she teased.

Kimiko's gaze slid downward to focus on her hands.

Izumi sighed. "Where is that useless samurai of yours, eh? Is it not her duty to escort you to the Roof of Red Gods?"

This got the girl's attention. She said tonelessly, "Ayumi said she would be here in time."

"Well, I certainly hope so!" Izumi shook her head. "It would be a disgrace if you were late to your own wedding."

After a silent pause, the plump maid said softly, "You know, my lady... you have been in my care since you were a small child. I have always tried to do my best for you."

"I know." These words were said so softly that Izumi almost didn't hear them.

"This marriage... it is unpleasant but you must not be afraid," Izumi continued earnestly. "It is woman's lot to suffer a husband and obey his wishes. If you're diligent in your marital duties and give him an heir, the lord will no doubt cease to trouble your chambers. You will have the freedom to act as you please, provided you are discreet."

Kimiko turned her head and stared at the maid, who blushed. "You mean, once my husband becomes bored and leaves me for other women, I can entertain the lovers of my choice?"

Izumi blushed brighter. "Of course," she mumbled. "That is the way of the world. Your lady mother would tell you thus if she had not taken nun's vows."

"My mother was never unfaithful to Father!"

"I did not mean to suggest she was!" Izumi said frantically, trying to avoid Kimiko's accusing gaze. "But since she is not here to advise you, the duty falls to me. Please, my lady... forgive my offense."

At that moment, Ayumi entered the room. "The Kanpuko has sent four of his Dogs to accompany you to the Roof," she said to Kimiko. "No doubt they intend to carry you bodily if you prove unwilling... if they can."

The lady rose gracefully, twitching the sides of her robes to adjust their fall. "Shall we go?"

Izumi got up as well. Hustling over to a table, she picked up a paper wrapped package and offered it to Kimiko with both hands. "For the pledging liquid," she said.

Kimiko took the packet of tissues and tucked it into a sleeve. After she had joined with Denbe in the Clouds and Rain, these papers would be used to mop up the evidence of their union. The success of a pillowing was gauged by how many tissues were needed afterwards.

"Shall we go?" she repeated to Ayumi.

"Hai!" The samurai bowed. Coming closer, she added quietly, "Do not fear, my lady. If it is the will of the gods, all will be well."

Kimiko looked directly at the woman she'd once hoped would be her lover - first and only. "I believe as much in the kindliness of the gods as you do." Despite her effort at control, the girl's tone was extremely bitter.

Ayumi felt her liver flop over at the look of sadness in her mistress' eyes. All of a sudden, she felt a powerful urge to snatch Kimiko over her shoulder, draw sword and sprint away from the palace, cutting down anyone who tried to stop them. Common sense intervened.

I have no right to ruin my lady's life with insane fantasies, the samurai thought. I have always put duty before all else. Why should now be any different?

A still, small voice within her mind whispered: Because you love her...

Ayumi was momentarily stunned. Love? This cannot be! she argued frantically with herself. I am a common samurai, a warrior of no prospects other than an early death. Her station is as high above mine as Heaven's to a crawling worm. And besides, she is too young!

"Are you all right?"

Ayumi started in surprise then realized that Kimiko had addressed her. "I... I am fine, my lady," she lied.

Kimiko sighed. For a moment, she thought she'd seen something odd in the samurai's face, an emotion she'd never observed before. Her liver had fluttered, recognizing the expression even though her mind had not. "Then let us not keep my husband waiting," she said, crushing that shred of hope before it could thaw the protective ice around her soul.

Ayumi nodded. "I will not leave your side for a moment."

Kimiko led the way out of her rooms, crimson robes sweeping the ground behind, with Ayumi on her heels.

Izumi glanced from one woman to the other as they left. With a deep, heartfelt sigh, the maid began the chore of packing her mistress' things. It was unlikely this apartment would remain theirs after the wedding.

Oh, my sweet mistress, Izumi thought. May the gods smile upon you now as never before.

I have a feeling you will need all the divine aid you can get.


Ryoko stirred on her cot. "My husband," she said gently, "please forgive me but I do not think it wise to earn the Kanpuko's wrath by being late to your wedding." 

Denbe sneered, flicking more powder over his cheeks. "Kimiko-san is a lovely piece of meat." His eyes narrowed meanly as he gazed at his first wife. "Much more attractive than you. Pillowing with her will be much more pleasurable than embracing your sharp bones." 

Ryoko dropped her eyes so Denbe wouldn't see how much his remark had hurt her. Amazing, after all these years, that his disregard can still wound me, she thought wearily. "Gomen nasai," she murmured. "I meant no offense." 

"Why are you still laying about, lazy woman?" Denbe smiled at his reflection in the dressing table mirror and applied more black dye to his teeth with a swab of cotton. "Get dressed!" 

"Gomen nasai, my lord." Ryoko was stunned. "I did not think I would be required to attend..." 

"Of course! You are my first wife and related to that hag, the Empress. You must show your ugly face at the wedding and reassure your honorable auntie that I've been taking good care of you..." He added meanly, "...unlike the 'care' you lavished on my lost children." 

Ryoko could feel tears welling up and she repressed them automatically. One obeyed one's husband in perfection, always smiling at adversity, always calm, never demanding. "Hai, my lord. I will prepare at once." 

She struggled up from the cot, ignored by Denbe, and a maid hurried over to support Ryoko as she moved slowly to the wardrobe. The lady was still feeling very weak, almost drained, and her knees trembled with strain. 

I love him so! Ryoko thought. If only he would love me, just a little, in return. She sighed as the maid undressed her. The jealousy meetings had been a gift from Heaven; just because she had to keep her feelings under control didn't mean she wasn't tormented by her husband's dalliances and indifference. Being able to talk about it with sympathetic listeners made enduring the hardship easier. But she'd been forced to stop attending when the new baby had been born... and thinking about that made a sudden burst of rage blossom in Ryoko's brain. 

That baby should have been mine! she seethed inwardly, unconsciously rubbing her abdomen. Buddha forgive me, but I murdered my unborn children to please him. How does he reward me? By taking whores to his bed! Oh, he might have married two of them, but those beautiful women with their smooth skin and wet, red mouths were nothing but whores.

Ryoko was rapidly becoming furious. 

His children - his! As if the babies I carried in my womb did not matter! His second wives - his! - as if I were dirt to be trampled upon, my honor and pride turned to dust. His needs, his wants! Ryoko's eyes glittered. And now he thinks to take another seductress to his bed...

She stood straighter and allowed the maid to draw colorful silk kimonos over her shoulders. All weakness was gone, all trembling ceased as her anger settled into a slow burn. I love him so much! If only he weren't so weak, if only he would put aside these foolish dreams and embrace me as he should! If only that young slut Kimiko would leave him alone and stop panting after my husband!

Ryoko would never, ever admit her true feelings to Denbe. She was too well trained to make such a confession but her heart was scarred by years of rejection; poisonous jealousy had crept in, bit by bit, each little emotional wound etched in acid and never forgotten. 

Now Ryoko had found a new object to focus her hatred on. 

Fujiwara no Kimiko!

The maid glanced at her mistress and shuddered. 

For one shivery second, she thought she'd seen a glint of eerie bright blue flame in Lady Ryoko's eyes 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN - Vows and Honor

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
Roof of the Red Gods
9 p.m., the second Hour of the Dog

The Roof of the Red Gods was so named for two reasons. First, it was located at the top of the highest stone tower and afforded an unrivaled view of the surrounding palace buildings and gardens. Second, a pair of enormous, scarlet-skinned statues of tusked and multi-armed gods from mainland Kara acted as guardians of this traditional wedding site. They stared down at the assembled courtier with bulging eyes, faces twisted into fierce scowls that had frightened generations of children into temporary obedience. 

The evening was crisp and cold; torches blazed in stands around the low retaining wall, providing some light but little heat. Waiting nobles knelt on cushions and huddled together for warmth, the beautiful layers of their kimonos providing no protection against the elements. The High Holy Abbot of Kamo Shrine, dressed in saffron and wearing the tall, pointed hat of his office, stood with his back to the wind. Clouds of incense billowed around him like a misty tide. 

On a special dais to one side, Saneyoshi-sama and the Dowager knelt together in a semblance of harmony. Their houses were being joined in what was supposed to be a happy occasion; if either entertained new doubts about the match, it was far too late to back away now. Surrounding the dais were their personal guards; the Regent's Dogs and Lady Hisame's retainers growled at one another and jockeyed for position with ill grace. 

Lord Denbe was seated on a cushion in front of the Abbot. Although he appeared to be relaxed, in fact the man was visibly vibrating with tension. Lady Ryoko knelt to his left, her expression miserable enough to cause whispered comments. Denbe turned to his first wife and hissed furiously, "Baka! You can do nothing about your ugliness but you can - at least! -  look glad that I am happy!" 

Ryoko pasted a sickly smile on her face and stared straight ahead. A faint tremor in her hand was the only indication of her nervousness... or was it another emotion that made the lady seem so ill, so pale and drawn? 

Kimiko arrived on the roof, walking slowly between the giant gods, a vision in red and gold. Ayumi stomped immediately behind her, the samurai's jaw thrust out belligerently, black eyes glaring defiantly left and right, as if daring anyone to protest her presence. Her hand was wrapped so tightly around the bound hilt of her katana that it creaked under the strain. The guards sent by the Regent scuttled onto the roof and immediately joined their fellows at the dais, obviously relieved that they didn't have to deal with the extremely dangerous woman anymore. 

A hooded figure slipped into the shadows at the back, unnoticed by any save the silent stone gods. 

When Kimiko knelt down gracefully at Denbe's right hand, Ayumi moved to the left and positioned herself - still standing with bow-legged stubbornness - a sword's length away from Ryoko. Dressed in formal armor, as if going to battle instead of attending her mistress' wedding, the samurai's appearance was so formidable that none - not even the Kanpuko - dared to complain. 

The Abbot cleared his throat and the whispers died away. Although weddings were traditionally presided over by a Shinto priest, that faith was out of favor at court, so he had been pressed into service by the Dowager. Holding his long sleeve between two fingers, he used his free hand to draw a dipperful of water from a nearby brass dish. Scattering the droplets over Denbe and Kimiko, he intoned a purification blessing, while behind him shaven-headed acolytes continued to toss handfuls of powdered incense into braziers. 

Kimiko did not feel the cold. She was freezing from within. The girl surreptitiously moved her arm a little, to drop the hilt of the concealed knife into her palm. Kimiko did not intend to remain a bride for long; if the gods did not take pity on her, she would swiftly become a widow... and then use the blade on herself, to take another turn on the Wheel and see if the next life would be any sweeter. 

Forgive me, Ayumi, she thought. Where I go, you cannot follow. Shigata ga nai... but perhaps we will be fated to meet again.

Desperation had forced her to this decision. Kimiko would not - could not! - allow Denbe to quiet his lust upon her body. Forced into a marriage that she did not want because of duty and honor, she had no choice but to allow the ceremony to take place. Afterwards, the strictures of giri satisfied, Kimiko would murder her husband and commit seppuku. It was her only means of protesting the decision of the Regent and she intended to die with the dignity of a Fujiwara. 

The Abbot droned on and on, the words of his message as senseless and without meaning to Kimiko as the buzzing of an insect. Her attention was focused solely on the comforting hilt of the knife in her hand, her thoughts far away, occupied with the silent solace of death. 

Ayumi stood as rigid and immovable as a mountain. The lacquered bamboo armor with its inner plates of steel was heavy and uncomfortable but it was also familiar. Her gauntleted hand stayed on the hilt of her katana and she stared straight ahead. There were several possible outcomes of tonight's business and it was unlikely there would be a happy ending. The stench of tragedy was in the air, and the samurai could only hope that if it came to the worst, she would be allowed the privilege of giving her own life in exchange for Kimiko's. 

The Abbot reached down and bound a red ribbon around Denbe's wrist, tying it to Kimiko's to symbolize their union. An acolyte brought a tray containing two small bowls of sake; bride and groom each took a shallow dish with their bound hands, careful to make their movements in harmony, and sipped three times before laying the empty containers back on the tray. Kimiko and Denbe were now wed. 

Suddenly, Lady Ryoko collapsed, falling forward and hitting her head on the stone floor with a loud thud. Someone screamed, Kimiko turned her head... and saw brilliantly flaming oni-bi pop into existence, the fireballs hovering a moment before beginning their dangerous dance. 

The Abbot snatched up a staff and began shaking it, the three metal rings on top jingling to frighten away evil spirits, and loudly chanted an exorcism. The oni-bi were unfazed by Buddhist prayers; they continued to swoop through the air, shedding small flames. A black, oily cloud appeared and seemed to engulf the Abbot... who choked, staggered backwards and fell, unconscious before he hit the flagstones. The staff fell from his open fingers and rolled away. 

The cloud roiled a moment longer, billows of darkness shifting and bubbling, before resolving itself into a hideous figure. A caricature of a woman, painfully thin, with shallow patterns of scales set along her knobby cheeks and bleeding down to flush greenly on her throat and sagging breasts. Thick fangs jutted up from her lower jaw and small horns curled up from a mop of disheveled black hair. Her eyes blazed with an insane, brilliant blue flame. A finger bearing a long, sharp talon pointed straight at Kimiko. "You die!" the hannya shrieked. "You die! Bitch, whore, slut! Die!" 

Courtiers leaped up and scurried backwards, into the dubious protection of the gigantic gods that adorned the rooftop. The Regent's and Dowager's bodyguards swarmed around the dais, shouting in confusion. The hannya did not notice. Beside Kimiko, Denbe sucked in a terrified breath and began yanking madly on the ribbon that bound him to his new bride. This only made the knot tighter and he panicked, eyes bulging nearly from their sockets as he scrambled to his feet and tried to run. 

Kimiko cried out at the pain, tried to resist Denbe's mad flight and nearly got her wrist dislocated. She was pulled along a few feet before a sword flashed down and sheared away the ribbon, missing the flesh of her arm by a hair. Ayumi roughly hauled Kimiko up, shoved the girl behind her, and faced the hannya with drawn katana. Denbe cowered near the retaining wall, whimpering in fright. "Give this up," Ayumi said harshly, "or I will slay your flesh and destroy you." 

Kimiko shook the knife free of her sleeve with a snarl. "What is this?" she demanded, no longer frozen but feeling a bonfire raging beneath her skin. "What is going on?" 

The hannya shrieked again and took a hopping step forward. "The slut will die! I will tear out her eyes! I will feast on her heart! She tried to destroy me, take what was mine! MINE! MINE!

Another voice spoke, this one cool and composed: "You cannot force love where it refuses to grow. He was never yours, my lady." 

It was the Shinto priestess, Snow Fairy. She'd hidden herself in the shadows and now came forward to kneel beside Ryoko's limp body. She took a glass vial out of her sleeve; the bright blue liquid inside seemed to glow with its own light. The hannya apparently recognized this as a new threat and turned to face Snow. "No! I seek justice!" the spirit whined angrily. "I seek to protect only what is mine by right!" It whipped around to glare at Kimiko and Ayumi. "She will die and I will kill you as well, samurai!" 

Calmly, Snow uncorked the vial and tossed the contents into Ryoko's face. The woman's eyelids fluttered, she moaned, and slowly sat up, with the priestess' help. Snow Fairy's potion worked to awaken the sleeping flesh, allowed the body to be conscious when the soul was absent. "What... what has happened?" Ryoko whispered. "I feel so empty... so cold..." 

The hannya howled, hooking its clawed fingers, and took another leap at Kimiko, but Ayumi interposed her sword and it stopped just short of being gutted by the samurai's blade. 

Snow pointed to the spirit. "Do you recognize this creature?" she asked Ryoko urgently. "Look deep into yourself, my lady, and tell me the truth. I think you know exactly what it is." 

Ryoko moaned, as if in pain. "Let me sleep! I'm so tired..." 

"No!" Snow lightly slapped the woman's face. "Look at it, my lady! Look!" 

Slowly, reluctantly, Ryoko turned her eyes towards the creature... and let out a muffled scream. "No! No, it cannot be!" She covered her face with her hands and shuddered. 

The hannya hissed, flicking her forked tongue across scaly lips. "That one is too weak to do what must be done," she said in disgust. "You cannot stop me, priest. I will have my due!" 

Snow pried Ryoko's fingers away from her eyes, forced her to confront the thing that had once been her soul. "Your jealousy has found its own life, my lady. Death has followed the path you have created." 

"No..." Ryoko whimpered in denial. Tears began sliding down her cheeks. "No..." 

"Yes." Snow's reply was flat but not without pity. "Only you can end this, my lady. You can atone for the sins that have been committed in your cause but you must act. I think you have always known but were afraid to admit the evil that festered in your heart for so long. The time has come and you must end this now!" 

"I didn't know...," she choked and then screamed, "Buddha forgive me! I didn't know! Oh, what have I done? What have I done?!!" 

The priestess helped the weak woman to her feet and gave her a gentle push in the hannya's direction. The spirit was circling Kimiko and Ayumi, probing for an opening in their defenses. 

Ryoko caught sight of her cowering husband and stopped crying. Her back straightened and her face took on such an expression of scorn that Denbe flinched. "I never asked for faithfulness. I never asked to be adored, pampered, doted upon. I asked only the smallest bit of affection, to be allowed the smallest portion of dignity. But you could not even give me that, my lord. My face might be ugly and displeasing, but your soul is a withered, hateful thing that holds not one shred of decency or goodness." 

The hannya was still circling, ignoring Ryoko... Ayumi glanced from the creature to Snow, who stood waiting patiently with folded hands. Behind her, Kimiko held her knife in a fierce grip and spat in the direction of the Regent's dais, "You've saddled me with a craven, uncle-san, but not for long!" 

But the samurai held her back with one hand, still keeping her katana pointed at the hannya

Ryoko was walking slowly, step by step, towards Denbe. Her eyes glittered with unshed tears. "I loved you," she said. "I gave you my heart and you trampled it in the dust. I have done everything you've ever asked - even murdered my unborn children in the womb because of you - and not one word, one gesture, have you ever made towards me that wasn't full of hate. You've spat on me, my lord. And this..." she swept a hand in a gesture towards the snarling hannya, "is the unhappy result." 

Denbe was curled in a fetal position, back pressed against the low stone wall. As Ryoko drew closer and closer, he put his arms over his head and cried, "Mercy, wife! Have pity on me!" 

Ryoko merely glanced at him in contempt. Whatever love she'd once possessed for her husband was gone, reduced to ashes and dust. "As much mercy as you showed me?" Her lip curled. "I'd say you are deserving of none, my lord. Iye! My lord no longer. I will claim no coward. It seems I am truly the strongest of us both, for I will pay for my crimes while you live and wallow in yours." 

She stepped up onto the top of the wall and spread her arms wide. The hannya, too intent on harassing Kimiko and Ayumi, ignored the perilous position of its flesh. 

Ryoko lifted her eyes and turned in the direction of the dais. Both the Regent and the Dowager stared at her. "Please forgive me," the lady said, wind whipping her long, black hair across her face. "Gomen nasai. Through my fault, evil has been unleashed and the deaths of innocents has come to pass." 

Snow interrupted. "The children are safe, my lady, and the courtesan as well." 

Ryoko shuddered. "Merciful Kwan Yin, thank you! And thank you as well, priestess." Once more she faced the silent dais. "I married a weakling but my own jealous nature is at fault. For my crimes, for the murders of my husband's second wives and the injury caused his children and courtesan, I pay with my life, and ask that you pray to Buddha for the salvation of my tainted soul." 

She leaned backwards, started to fall... but the hannya, finally realizing what was about to happen, took a long, hopping leap away from its intended prey and caught Ryoko's ankles in its clawed hands. The lady dangled upside down, screaming and struggling against that bony, unbreakable grip. 

Ayumi started towards the wall but Kimiko was faster. She reached the hannya and drove her knife into its back to the hilt, gritting through her teeth to the samurai, "Stay back! This is a family matter!" 

The hannya screeched, echoed by Ryoko. Ayumi called, "What you do to the soul, the flesh suffers!" 

Kimiko nodded in understanding. Ryoko had chosen an honorable death, seppuku in payment of her crimes - as was her right. Kimiko's giri demanded that she aid the lady in her path, one noblewoman to another. It was a duty she did not relish but was determined to fulfill properly. Full of pent up emotion but in control, she grabbed the hannya by the back of her hair, forcing the head backwards. The creature dared not let go of Ryoko; it hissed in frustration and then in surprise as the girl coolly drew the razored edge of her knife across its throat. 

A spurt of steamy liquid gushed from the wound and the hannya whistled in agony. Ryoko gave a bubbling moan as her own throat was severed by sympathetic magic and a hot flood of blood sheeted down, drizzling from her hair, staining her robes. 

Oni-bi vanished with a subdued pop. 

The hannya strained a moment but the wound was mortal. Inexorably, she began to be dragged over the edge of the wall by Ryoko's dead weight. Denbe quickly rose from his crouch and screamed, "Die, bitch! Die! I've hated you all my life! You can't even kill yourself properly, you stupid cow!" He gave the creature a shove that sent it toppling over the wall... and he lost his balance, slipped in the pool of dark liquid on the flagstones, and fell headlong onto Kimiko. 

The first inkling the girl had that something was wrong came when she felt a warm, sticky wetness all along her front. Denbe was lying on top of her, limp and heavy. Ayumi rolled the man off her and grunted. The hilt of Kimiko's knife was just visible, sticking out of his chest. "He must have fallen on it," the samurai offered. The man was clearly dead. 

Kimiko sat up, gasping for breath. "I... I couldn't let her die by inches, Ayumi-san. I had to help. Ryoko would have been my elder sister. It was proper and... I felt so sorry for her." She'd heard stories from other court ladies about their hellish married lives and Ryoko's confession had wrung her heart. But for the mercy of the gods, that sorry tale could have been her own. "At least she didn't suffer much." 

Ayumi let out a sigh. "I'd say her life was suffering enough. At least she found peace in the end." Glancing over the wall, she saw Ryoko's broken body lying on the ground and a knot of spectators with torches huddled around the corpse. 

Snow Fairy walked up to the two women. "Karma," she said simply after eyeing Denbe. "His karma finally caught up with him." The mellow torchlight lent a touch of color to her skin, darkened her pink eyes to black. 

A voice cried out, "You are all under arrest!" It was the Regent; he had left the dais and was striding towards them, flanked by his guards. The Dowager still knelt on her cushion, but her face was cold, expressionless. It was clear that she would not interfere. 

Kimiko started laughing. Her nerves were raw and she was on the verge of hysteria. "You must be joking, uncle-san! What reason do you have for arresting us?" 

Saneyoshi-sama's nostrils flared in fury and he snapped, "Your retainer has drawn a sword in the imperial palace; that merits a death sentence. As for you, niece... I accuse you of the deliberate, pre-meditated murder of your lawful husband, Suwa Denbe, and his first wife! The priestess was in collusion with you, of course. Guards! Arrest them!" 

Ayumi spun around, ready to slash her way through the Regent's Dogs, but Snow put a hand on her arm. Making a mystic gesture with her free hand and muttering a few indistinguishable words, she tapped into the kami magic and side-stepped herself and the samurai away from roof to a place of safety, using a spell known only to Shinto priests. To the onlookers, it was as if Ayumi and Snow Fairy simply vanished into thin air, leaving not a trace behind. 

Kimiko rubbed her eyes. Gone! They were both gone, leaving her to face the Regent alone. An aching bitterness swelled within her breast; she would never have expected this betrayal, this cruel abandonment. Her belly twisted in pain, making her feel as if she'd swallowed broken glass. 

I loved her so much!  Kimiko thought. I would have given her anything! How could she do this to me? I was a fool to trust her. A stupid, childish fool! The girl's anger grew until it threatened to strangle her, then abruptly died, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth and a heart swollen with sadness and regret. No.  Ayumi does not deserve such venom; it is unworthy of her. She has served me faithfully and well. I'm glad that she's gone; better that my beloved not be caught in the Regent's web. Better she be free...

Ayumi... wherever you are... I love you. Live and remember me.

She turned to Saneyoshi-sama. "Do what you must," Kimiko said proudly. "I have lost everything tonight - husband, family and love. What is left but death?" 

Two guards grabbed her upper arms but the Regent said, "Be careful, dolts!" He leaned closer to Kimiko. "Death would be too merciful for you, niece. Tomorrow I will pronounce your sentence. Take her to the dungeon!" 

Kimiko walked to her doom with an erect, proud posture, ignoring the stares and whispers, the round eyes peering at her from behind shielding sleeves and fans. 

She'd been willing to accept death at her own hands to salvage her dignity, to protect her honor... 

Nothing could touch her after that. 

Nothing. 

 

CHAPTER TWELVE - Pride and Punishment

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Wellspring of the Mirror, audience hall of the Kanpuko Fujiwara Saneyoshi
8 a.m., the first Hour of the Dragon

Fujiwara Saneyoshi, Regent of the Emperor and most powerful man in the Floating World, knelt on his dais and scowled down at the figure of his niece. They were alone; this was internal clan business, which did not concern anyone else and would be dealt with in private.

"Fujiwara no Kimiko, you are guilty of the murder of your husband, Suwa Denbe," the Kanpuko said in a flat, clipped tone. "You have failed in your duty and soiled the honor of the clan. There are no excuses for your actions."

Kimiko knelt with her forehead pressed against the floor. She no longer wore bridal costume; a strange female servant had brought clean but plain kimonos to her cell that morning. Kimiko's face was clean of paint and her long hair tied back haphazardly with a grubby paper ribbon, but making an elegant appearance was the least of her concerns.

As Saneyoshi-sama expanded on the theme of giri, Kimiko let her mind wander back to the conclusion she'd drawn last night. Being thrown unceremoniously into a dank, damp stone cell with only a stack of moldy straw for a bed had given her plenty of time for contemplation. Both Regent and Dowager had witnessed the events first hand; why was her uncle insisting on interpreting last evening in its worst possible light?

He protects himself and Lady Hisame, she thought dispassionately. The girl had gone through so many emotional highs and lows in the dark dungeon that now she felt only a vast weariness. The Dowager knew about Ryoko and the hannya all along. That is the only thing that makes sense.

Since the hannya hadn't attacked or killed anyone of importance, the Dowager had allowed the situation to continue, unwilling to admit her niece was possessed by a jealousy demon. Lady Hisame probably hadn't found out until it was too late to act discreetly. If a close member of the Emperor's family was turned to evil, then the rest of the court would have demanded Kaika be dethroned, lest this unwholesome connection taint the empire at large. Civil war was the least one could expect from such a turn of events; it was well known that there were other contenders for the imperial seat who were held at bay only by the Dowager's intrigues and her tentative control over military leaders.

That precarious situation could explode in an instant if the nobles rose up to protest Kaika's rule.

Agreeing to my betrothal to Denbe served an unholy purpose, Kimiko thought. If I'd been spared, she'd have gained a measure of control over my uncle through marital ties. But if I'd been killed by the hannya, my death would have bound her and Saneyoshi more tightly together. Neither of them would have wanted the truth to come to light. If Kaika lost his throne, both of them would lose power, position and - most likely - their lives. The noblest heads of the Empire are usually the first things to be cut off in a civil war, and frankly, those two have more enemies than friends.

Her uncle had not known and that made the hannya's appearance all the more shocking. He must have realized in a moment what it would mean, she thought. Now he must get rid of me with a pretense that sounds plausible, which explains his accusation of murder. The other witnesses on the roof will be convinced that the things they saw last night were hallucinations, possibly brought on by contaminated incense and hysteria. It is very easy to twist people's minds, play with their perceptions. After carefully seeding the gossip mongers with lies and smoke, in a week's time uncle-san will be able to find at least a dozen witnesses ready to swear they saw me stab Denbe twenty times, cut out his liver with a pair of chopsticks, and use his eyeballs as gaming dice. Baka!

She snapped back to attention as Saneyoshi finished his lecture.

"I can understand, child, why you found joining with Denbe an unpalatable duty, but what kind of example will be set if I let you go unpunished?" He gave the girl a patently false look of benevolence. "As head of our clan, it falls to me to give judgment in this matter."

Kimiko waited, wondering idly if he intended a 'fatal accident' to befall her in the near future. She could not rely on the Dowager's protection. For all her seeming friendliness, the woman had tried to kill her once and failed.

"It is a tradition among the highest families in Wa that, when their girl children merit punishment, she be condemned to reside and work in Hanamachi for a period of one year." Saneyoshi snapped his fan shut. "A palanquin has been ordered to remove you from the palace immediately. Your personal effects will be delivered to your destination later."

Kimiko almost gasped in shock and controlled herself with an effort. Hanamachi? The Courtesan District? He expected her to be a prostitute for a year?

The Regent continued, "You will be confined to Nishikigi Soshi, the Brocade Tree brothel - a very respectable establishment - and you are forbidden to leave that place until twelve months have lapsed. Because of your high rank and despite your lack of training, you will be an asobimi, the first class of courtesan." He wiped a sleeve across his lips and frowned. "I expect you to obey your new mistress in all things. If you displease her, she has my permission to treat you no differently than any other girl under her roof. Do you understand me, child? Get used to having a lower station in life; your high-strung ways and spoiled selfishness will not serve you well in the Willow World."

Kimiko sat upright and fixed her uncle with a weary gaze. "Hai. I understand," she said softly.

Saneyoshi's frown grew more terrible. He knew very well that his niece had the right to commit seppuku if she found her punishment intolerable but frankly, he had more use for the chit alive than dead. Girl children in any clan were valued highly for the alliances they forged by marriage. He could not afford to throw away a precious, future opportunity to further cement his power and wanted to get Kimiko as far away from the Dowager's sphere of influence as possible. Exile to Hanimachi was a just punishment which might teach the stubborn wench a much-needed lesson in humility, as well as keep her out of harm's way until the Denbe debacle had time to cool down.

"If you should decide to take a knife to your throat, niece, I will not prevent you," he said, having already arranged to put a stop to any noble nonsense on the girl's part. "However... it would be a pity if you chose the Rainbow Buddha's mercy. Izumi is an old woman, hardly suited to the harshness of poverty. Would you abandon her as well as life?"

An icy flush rippled across her flesh. Kimiko understood the threat; if she did not submit, chose seppuku instead of punishment, Izumi would suffer. "I will not be allowed to take my maid with me?" she asked.

"No. Izumi will remain here in the palace. I assure you, she will be well taken care of and will lack for nothing."

Kimiko allowed her shoulders to slump in defeat. She'd already lost Ayumi; she would rather kiss Lord Emma's black backside than be responsible for Izumi's downfall as well. "Wakarimashita! I understand." She bowed again, knocking her forehead against the floor in formal submission. "Giri compels me to comply, honorable Saneyoshi-sama. I will do as you require."

The Regent sat back, satisfied. "I will receive regular reports of your conduct and I expect to hear that you have been obedient, courteous and determined to honorably bear your punishment. In one year's time, we will meet again."

"Hai, my lord."

Saneyoshi dismissed her and Kimiko walked slowly away, feet dragging as if reluctant to bear her to a terrible fate.

Her destiny lay in Hanamachi, selling her body to any man who could afford the price. Merchant, warrior, prince or pauper... anyone's coin would do.

She felt no fear, only regret for what might have been.

Oh, Ayumi, my love, where are you now?


In a forest miles away from Heian-kyo, an infuriated samurai snarled, "What in the gods' name have you done?!!" 

Frightened birds wheeled up into the sky, screeching in panic. 

Then a heavy, ominous silence descended upon the trees once again. 

THE END

(To be continued in the next Tale of Unmei: Onna Yugao - Lady of the Evening Faces)

 

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